Kira A. Tamashiro—Director of Alumni Relations
‘Iolani School—Honolulu, Hawaii
United States
Samples, Research & Tools
CASE Offers Perspectives on Ethical Decision-Making in Fundraising

The attention on the gift from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation to the London School of Economics has raised a number of legitimate and important questions for educational institutions and fundraisers who work on their behalf.

CASE, which provides standards, training and resources for educational fundraisers in the United Kingdom and around the world, offers the following perspectives and guidance to help fundraising professionals and their institutions respond to questions and ensure that their own operations reflect best practice. Institutions need to think carefully about whom they accept gifts from, and for what purpose.

General Statement

Frequently Asked Questions


General Statement

The CASE Principles of Practice for Fundraisers at Educational Institutions describes philanthropy as "a voluntary exchange in which the values and aspirations of donors are matched with the values and aspirations of those they benefit." Fundraising professionals work on behalf of their institutions during this exchange and "represent their universities, colleges and schools to donors, volunteers, and the larger public." In doing so, fundraisers and anyone engaged in raising private support have a responsibility to be ethical and transparent when making decisions that will affect the institution and those it serves.

Ethical decision-making is a deliberate and conscientious effort to make judgments that reflect the institution's mission, values and long-term goals. Ethical decisions are made with the public trust and institutional integrity in mind.

While professional standards provide a framework for ethical decision-making, it cannot be legislated. Instead, institutions need to exercise their ethical muscles on a regular basis. They should review relevant internal policies, procedures and standards; discuss institutional values; and practice the art of ethical decision-making by exploring "what if?" scenarios within the context of professional standards and principals of practice.

Even decisions made with due diligence and ethical intent can later be second-guessed when situations and perceptions change. In these cases, institutions should be transparent about their processes, re-examine their approaches, and adjust course as appropriate. This transparency will assure donors that the institution takes its mission and responsibilities seriously.

Private gifts from donors who are committed to education help institutions serve students and conduct research that improves lives. The practice of ethical decision-making and promotion of professional principles will further enhance the UK's progress in attracting support to advance the missions of all educational institutions.


Frequently Asked Questions

How should universities make decisions about whether or not to accept donations?

What factors should an institution consider?

What due diligence should an institution do before accepting a gift?

What can or should a donor expect in return for a gift?

How can institutions avoid real or perceived conflict of interest when accepting a gift?

What are the implications for universities and fundraisers at a time when philanthropic gifts are becoming extremely important to the financial health of institutions? Will the need for private support cause institutions to be less careful in the vetting of potential gifts?

What is CASE's role in ensuring that institutions make wise decisions?


How should universities make decisions about whether or not to accept donations?

Many institutions have gift acceptance committees that include key staff members and sometimes volunteers. These committees will assess major gifts, often according to the institution's gift acceptance guidelines or policies. Gift acceptance policies typically address the conditions and ethical parameters under which a college or university will or won't accept a gift. The vetting process is somewhat similar to the process institutions use when evaluating the acceptance of research grants.


What factors should an institution consider?

Some factors are fairly straightforward. If, for example, the university has reason to believe that the funds for the gift were gained illegally, it won't accept the gift. Nor should institutions accept gifts intended to support a programme that the university doesn't offer or plan to offer.

But other factors are not always as black and white. Does the gift clearly advance the mission of the institution? Is the work of the donor or donating organization consistent with the institution's values? Will association with the donor affect the institution's reputation, either positively or negatively? How will acceptance of the gift be perceived by faculty/academic members, staff, students, alumni and others in the university community? Is the university comfortable with any further expectations of involvement on the part of the donor? Are those expectations appropriate?

Even if a university has weighed these questions carefully and accepts a gift in good faith, the situation can change over time. The donor's reputation may fall out of favour, public perception can change or the institution's own needs or values can change. When a donor's reputation comes into question, the institution can face backlash by association. To the best of its ability, the institution should try to anticipate these possibilities as it makes a decision about accepting a gift.


What due diligence should an institution do before accepting a gift?

Institutions must carefully balance the need to do due diligence on donors and gifts at the same time they avoid unnecessary invasion of donor privacy. To manage this balance between the need to know and the right to privacy, advancement researchers typically focus on reviewing and noting only information that is in the public domain and that is relevant to the gift. There is a significant amount of information that is publicly available through reliable sources to assist institutions as they vet gifts. See CURRENTS for a discussion of the privacy issue.


What can or should a donor expect in return for a gift?

Donors should expect to receive appropriate acknowledgement and to be assured that their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they are given. (See the Donor Bill of Rights, developed by CASE and other organizations, for a full list of donor rights.)

A donor should not expect to retain any control, actual or implied, over the use of the gift once it has been accepted. Donors and institutions can agree on what area of the institution will benefit from the gift, but the donor cannot direct the hiring of faculty, determine who receives a scholarship, select the architect of a building or dictate the contents of an academic programme. The institution must retain full control of its mission and management decisions.

In cases where the donor demands control over institutional decisions or expects something inappropriate in return for the gift, such as the admission of a son or daughter or preference in the issuance of a contract, the institution has an ethical responsibility not to accept the gift. In all cases, the integrity and autonomy of the institution must be preserved.


How can institutions avoid real or perceived conflict of interest when accepting a gift?

The following is excerpted from the CASE Statement on the Management of Conflicts of Interest:

Conflicts of interest may occur when the interests of the institution differ from those of a constituent or when the interests of an institutional representative differ from those of a constituent or the institution itself. Conflicts of commitment may occur when institutional representatives also have other professional obligations. Not all such conflicts are inappropriate, but they all must be managed thoughtfully, carefully and transparently to serve the greater good and to preserve the mission and values of the institution.

  • Clear institutional policies regarding conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment should be in place and should identify for faculty, staff, officers and trustees their fiduciary and ethical responsibilities with regard to the interests of the institution and its primary constituents.
  • Those institutional policies should include a process for disclosing conflicts at least annually, as well as a process for reviewing and acting upon those disclosures.
  • In addition to establishing and implementing these policies, institutions should clearly disclose to their primary constituents the process by which conflicts are managed.

The CASE Statement of Ethics, the CASE Principles of Practice for Fundraising Professionals at Educational Institutions, and the principles for alumni relations and communications and marketing professionals and periodicals editors also address conflict of interest.


What are the implications for universities and fundraisers at a time when philanthropic gifts are becoming extremely important to the financial health of institutions? Will the need for private support cause institutions to be less careful in the vetting of potential gifts?

Given the large number of gifts made to universities, it's unlikely that an issue with one gift or donor will have a broader impact on giving to education. Donors will continue to support the mission of educational institutions. However, public backlash regarding a high-profile gift may prompt fundraising professionals and their institutions to review their own gift acceptance practices and policies.

Joanna Motion, CASE vice president for international operations, offers this perspective: "The largest philanthropic gifts in the UK go to education. And the number of our donors is rising steadily, year on year. So universities must expect to be in the brightest spotlight, not only from the community, seeking reassurance about the appropriateness of university partners, but also from donors checking on how effectively we have used their philanthropic investment. "

Even given the growing emphasis on philanthropic support, institutions will still make decisions about gift acceptance based on mission, the functional and reputational impact of the gift, and other factors that are typically outlined in its policies or guidelines.


What is CASE's role in ensuring that institutions make wise decisions?

CASE does not and cannot police gifts. Our role is to encourage philanthropy in the truest sense of the word. We promote and support ethical practice in a number of ways:

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The CASE InfoCenter maintains a collection of ethics and conflict of interest policies.

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